Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pyrrhic Victory Indeed: A Response to Dr. Thomas Sowell

Over at National Review, Dr. Sowell has a recent article on his disappointment with the "victory" of conservatives in the latest battle over spending, taxation, and the national debt. He is right to be disappointed, but I think he should also be disappointed with his own approach. What follows is the comment I left on Dr. Sowells article:

Dr. Sowell is undoubtedly brilliant, a gifted writer, and someone who is capable of cutting through confusion and distraction in order to illuminate core issues. For that reason, it is disappointing for him to choose partisan obfuscation rather than simple truth when discussing the causes of our debt problems.

The current fiscal situation is caused by at least three things:
(1) Levels of spending.
(2) Levels of taxation.
(3) Economic conditions.

For Dr. Sowell to say that our debt is "caused" by "excessive" spending alone is simply misleading. Our debt is also a function of, at the very least, spending, taxation, and economic conditions.

FACT: We had a surplus. During the administration of George W. Bush Republicans and some Democrats decided to trade a surplus for tax cuts. It was well known, among honest Democrats and Republicans alike, that when George W. Bush took office that we had a long-term entitlement spending problem. Instead of paying down our debt to deal with those long-term problems, we decided to cut taxes. Without those tax cuts, we would have a significantly lower level of national debt now. To top it off, we also decided to engage in two wars without raising revenue to pay for them. And we decided to provide a new prescription drug benefit to seniors without paying for it.

For Dr. Sowell to imply that Republicans were powerless and had nothing to do with the current situation is simply partisanship overcoming the better judgment that I know exists under the partisan veneer. I believe Dr. Sowell knows better. He is too intelligent and too informed about public affairs not to.

I happen to believe that before you are in a position to try to dictate terms to the other party, it is important to get your own house in order. For conservatives, that starts by having the intellectual honesty to acknowledge the role both spending increases AND tax cuts have played in causing the current debt situation. You may not believe that those tax cuts should be rolled back in anyway as a matter of policy, but to pretend like they have not had an effect on the deficit is simply propaganda overcoming honesty. One can say that deficits are caused only by spending and not tax cuts until they are blue in the face. That doesn't make it true.

FACT: Much of the increase in spending we have experienced now is due to extended unemployment benefits and other so-called automatic stabilizers (i.e. Medicaid, food stamps, etc. etc.) that tend to increase when the economy goes bad. That is, these increases in spending are linked to the performance of the economy, rather than the proliferation of new programs. Clearly, conservatives and liberals (mostly) disagree on how to get the economy going again, but we should still be able to agree on the simple fact that much of the increases in spending at the federal level are tied to the performance of economy. Furthermore, we should keep in mind when talking about "government" spending that a good portion of the increase in the federal government's spending flowed to the states to make up for large cuts at that level of government. There is a sort of dishonesty in complaining about increases in "government spending" without acknowledging the cuts at the state and local level and noting that a portion of the "increases" at the federal level are simply funds flowing to the states that function to somewhat lessen overall what are in fact decreases in government spending caused by the recession.

FACT: A good portion of our fiscal imbalance is caused by a huge decrease in revenues caused by economic problems that benefit no one, whether they are liberal or conservative. The output gap and the fact that our economy is performing way below potential is our common enemy. We may disagree on precise levels of taxation and spending, but we should be able to agree that our current level of economic performance is a major problem. We could better afford the George W. Bush tax cuts that conservatives are so deeply attached to if we had a better economy. We could better afford spending on education, research and development, infrastructure, and the social safety net that liberals especially value if we had a better economy. Neither Democrats nor Republicans and neither liberals nor conservatives benefit from current economic conditions.

Yes, I understand that given that we don't come close to agreeing to how to address this problem, that pointing out that the performance of the economy is a common problem does not necessarily help to bridge the huge differences in opinion among liberals and conservatives on how to best proceed to deal with those problems. But, I think even as both parties resort to blaming each other (which is entirely appropriate by the way -- we also need accountability, not merely compromise) we should keep in mind that there is in fact a shared problem to be solved.

I agree with Dr. Sowell that Republicans have negotiated poorly. However, I happen to feel the same way about President Obama's "negotiation." The only cuts that are binding are those that occur relatively soon, in 2012 and perhaps (maybe) in 2013 before a new Congress gets a chance to have its say. These cuts are $21 billion and $42 billion respectively. With a $14.5 trillion dollar debt and large yearly deficits, such cuts aren't anything to write home about.

Any cuts that go beyond that simply are not going to be respected by Democrats if they win in 2012. This is especially true due to the offensive manner by which such cuts in the "deal" were negotiated under threat of default. I am extremely disappointed that President Obama offered any spending cuts at all, given the unprincipled threats that were used to extract them. And I am sure that Republicans, if they win in 2012, will go beyond the cuts that were negotiated in the so-called "deal" as well.

At the end of the day, I think both sides are ultimately going to have to just accept the system. If you really want major change without ideological compromise, it takes winning multiple elections in a row. That is just the reality of the situation. I understand frustration on both sides with this state of affairs, but our system was actually designed by Madison and the other framers to frustrate those who want to make major changes quickly.

Mostly, major changes to our system of government occur due to crisis. The New Deal and expansion of government afterwards can be attributed to the Great Depression and World War II. But, it wasn't merely a crisis that enabled change, but rather a crisis combined with a political realignment. I know certain conservatives are salivating because there is a "crisis" and they think it is the perfect "opportunity" to roll back the social safety net and the related expansion of government to something much closer to what we had before the New Deal. What such conservatives need to remember however, is that it takes more than a crisis to obtain such an ambitious goal. What it takes is a crisis plus a political realignment. As recent political opinion polls show, there has not been a realignment, so conservatives are going to have very limited political capital to spend on rolling back government, which, by the way, is perfectly capable of returning to "normal" once the crisis has passed.

A final point. Conservatives need to stop blaming the media so much. First of all, it isn't actually possible for the media to be completely objective. Second of all, like it or not, a lot of people simply do not agree with conservative ideas, so-called liberal media or not. Finally, conservatives have a very loud voice in our public affairs. Fox News is now part of the mainstream media and so is National Review for that matter. To engage in so much whining about the media makes you sound like bitter losers. Get over it.

If you aren't persuading people, it isn't because they are not sufficiently familiar with your ideas. Most people know what conservatives believe and many people have rejected those beliefs. The same can be said of liberals. We are a divided country with a lot of moderates and non-political people who may not know exactly what they believe, but they know they don't really buy what EITHER liberals or conservatives are trying to sell them. In that situation, political realignment is very difficult. It is better to acknowledge reality and keep your expectations in check.

If conservatives continue to play their cards as incompetently as they have by consistently overreaching rhetorically (even while consistently failing to deliver in reality), there may well be a political realignment alright. But as recent public opinion polls show, liberals and not conservatives, are likely to be the beneficiaries. That is something for conservatives to think about when they gleefully talk about causing the country to plunge into default in order to achieve their ideological fantasies.

As a liberal, obviously I am not saying that I have anything against a political realignment that benefits liberals. I just would rather it be caused by our side persuading the American people rather than your side causing a crisis that does permanent damage to the country.

And by the way, please try to have some perspective. As a liberal, I would rather live in a successful country where political conservatives held sway than in an unsuccessful country in which political liberals held sway. I hope that patriotic conservatives could join me in that sentiment. Politics, while fascinating and incredibly important, is not everything.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Role of Philosophy in Everday Decisions

Stanley Fish has an interesting to read article in the NY Times on the question of what difference our answers to philosophical questions makes to everyday moral decisions. As he points out, a person who takes a position of moral relativism in asserting that moral values cannot be determined in a purely abstract realm of thought nonetheless can and will come to everyday "common sense" moral judgments about what is right or wrong in everyday life.

I think Fish's proposition is interesting. To some degree philosophy, while highly interesting, is in fact impractical when it comes to resolving concrete questions of morality. Although under certain comprehensive theories, moral deductions regarding concrete issues is certainly possible, we may question on what basis we choose a comprehensive theory to begin with if highly contested religious motivations for choosing a particular comprehensive theory are conceded to not be universally accepted.

Going along with the same point about the implications (or lack there of) of philosophical debates as a guide to living, let us assume that a person believes in determinism rather than free will. That person still has to make what we call "decisions" and will have to live life with the consequences of those decisions.

None of this is to suggest that thinking about philosophical questions is not worthwhile. If anything, a philosophical inquiry is useful in giving us a sense of what can and cannot be resolved and a firmer understanding of the basis of our beliefs. However, the limits of philosophy itself, I think, is evident.